The topic of East European Jewish dancing has never received adequate study, partly for objective reasons. Much of the source material that does exist is in the form of commercial or artistic re-creations or representations of Jewish dance, rather than records of Jewish dance as it had actually been performed. In America, Jewish dance rapidly became secularized to the point that key generic distinctions were lost. Ashkenazic dance virtually died out in Palestine, even prior to the creation of the State of Israel. Evidence for actual choreographic forms of Jewish dance—in the form of pictorial evidence, memoir literature, and, later, the dancing and memories of informants—dates only from the middle to the end of the nineteenth century. From that period on, it is possible to construct a general picture of the place of dance in Jewish society as well as of the changes that took place roughly from 1850 to 1940.
The choreographic system that emerged in Jewish dance seems to have been fairly stable—with some significant local variations—over most of the area of Jewish settlement in Eastern Europe from the early to mid-nineteenth century until the end of the century. By then, modernization and Enlightenment, and in some places (parts of Hungary, Moldavia, and Walachia) cultural assimilation, had weakened the practice of the system. World War I and the Russian Revolution marked the end of this choreographic system as the dominant one for most East European Jews, although elements survived in some Jewish communities of North America into the 1960s.
For Jews living in a Germanic, Slavic, or Hungarian ethnic environment, dancing became the focus of ethical strictures, unceasingly repeated by the rabbis. At least since the fifteenth century, the aristocracies of Western Europe favored contra dance and couple dance formations, in some of which the partners of opposite sexes held one another by the hand or waist. In contra dances, the couple figures were distributed among a changing series of partners and at times combined line and couple formations. During the Renaissance, these aristocratic dances became diffused among the urban population, eventually reaching the peasantry. In Eastern Europe, the peasantry adopted these dances at various periods after the seventeenth century.
The responsa literature of Ashkenazic rabbis of later medieval Germany and Bohemia, and of the Polish Commonwealth in early modern times, occasionally mentions the issue of dance, usually in the context of weddings. These religious authorities frequently recommend the use of a handkerchief as a means of separating the sexes if they did indeed dance together. This was evidently the minimum requirement for ethical decorum.
As Hasidism assumed its mature form in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, it ritualized and sacralized many aspects of Jewish life that had previously been subject to secular fashions. In the realm of dance, Hasidim reworked older elements of Ashkenazic dance to produce a form and context that blended its older celebratory functions with ecstatic religious devotion.
Hasidism created a new and powerful dance context within which women had a highly circumscribed role. Under the influence of Hasidism, communities devalued and limited the heteroerotic potential in traditional dance, mainly by insisting that dances could be performed, if at all, only by women (or even only by unmarried girls) or only by men. Other communities maintained the old compromise position of dancing with handkerchiefs. Southern European non-Hasidic communities sometimes preserved the pre-Hasidic popular custom of dancing without handkerchiefs.
At the same time, the expressive power of male dancing (and of separate female dance) was enhanced as new circumstances allowed men to act out a melancholy or ecstatic individualism through dance. This type of dancing emphasized movements of the arms and hands as well as the legs. While some broad parallels can be drawn with Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar dance, the Jewish choreographic language remained distinct in many particulars. It would seem that this new semisacred solo dance (khosidl) also adopted elements of the older ritual wedding dances of the in-laws and elders of the community, as the music was often identical in these two socially different forms. The patriarchal and mystical elements of Ashkenazic dance were strengthened at the expense of the erotic and ludic elements that had long coexisted with them. Among Misnagdic communities, however, somewhat similar hand and arm motions were employed in erotic and ludic contexts of mixed dancing, especially during the freylekhs and (to a lesser extent) sher dances.
It does not appear that Jews in Eastern Europe exclusively performed dances that were peculiar to their community and society in any historical period. Much of the dance repertoire of Ashkenazic Jews was of a cosmopolitan nature, incorporating elements from their gentile neighbors. Nevertheless, Jews also practiced an identifiable system of dance, with a corporeal expressive vocabulary quite different from that of non-Jewish peoples of Eastern or Western Europe. A Polish description of an aristocratic wedding in 1674, where professional Jewish dancers joined with Gypsies, Karaites, and Turks, would suggest that a distinctive, and partly oriental, form of dance was practiced by Polish Jews at that time. The documentation is lacking, however, to trace the development or diffusion of Ashkenazic dance in Eastern Europe from then until the emergence of a genre system after the early to mid-nineteenth century and the more or less continuous musical and choreographic documentation of this system by the beginning of the twentieth century. While parts of this newer genre system were in all probability based on earlier or even much earlier models, the documents can only permit a very partial reconstruction of earlier genre systems.
The klezmer musical repertoire, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, can be divided into cosmopolitan, coterritorial, transitional, and core categories. It is possible to apply the same system to dance to some degree. Cosmopolitan urban dances, usually of West European origin—such as the minuet and the polonaise—were documented among the Jews of Eastern Europe at least since the later eighteenth century, probably beginning with the haute bourgeoisie. As the nineteenth century progressed, these were replaced by the quadrille, the waltz, and such couple dances as pas de quatre (pa de kater), pas d’Espagne (pa de span), and the Lancers (lantsers), all well known among village and town Jews as well as by urban Jews of several social classes.
Among the coterritorial dances originating with the peoples of Eastern Europe, Polish dances such as the mazurka and krakowiak, Rusyn (Ruthenian) dances such as the kolomeyka, and Ukrainian dances such as the kozachok were well known. Other Ukrainian and Rusyn dances were popular among local Jews but did not seem to travel widely throughout the territories in which East European Jews lived.
The “transitional” klezmer repertoire was made up of dance and “listening” genres that had originated in the former Danubian principalities, which are today’s Romania (minus Transylvania) and Moldova, plus parts of southeastern Ukraine and the Crimean peninsula. In dance, what has survived most strongly are the bulgarish (Moldavian bulgareasca), sirba, honga (hangu), zhok (joc, hora boiereasca), and hora (hora moldoveaneasca). The bulgarish functioned as the virtual “national” dance of American Jews from roughly 1880 until 1950, and was also transplanted to Palestine under the name hora.
Walter Zev Feldman, “Bulgareasca, Bulgarish, Bulgar: The Transformation of a Klezmer Dance Genre,” Ethnomusicology 38.1 (1994): 1–35; Tsevi Fridhaber, Ha-Maḥol ha-yehudi, vol. 3 (Haifa, 1978); Tsevi Fridhaber, “The Dance with the Separating Kerchief,” Dance Research Journal 18.1 (1985–1986): 65–69.